Saturday is the king of days at Gen Con. No leaving the Con at 10 or 11 P.M. on Saturday for us. When Heather, Eli, and myself headed downtown at 9 A.M. we knew in all likelihood that we would not be returning home until around 3A.M. Sunday morning. With the adrenaline rush that day three of Gen Con brings, we headed off to the board game hall for our first game of what was to be an amazing day at Gen Con!
The three of us were joined by my old gaming friend of 20 years, Jim Bennie, as we set down to play Sunrise City. Sunrise City by Isaias Vallejo, is a new release for 2012 from Clever Mojo Games, and was being run by the wonderful gang from Game Salute. It is game of city development where players combine their efforts to build a common city, but are also competing to gain the most points. At its core Sunrise City is a tile laying game with similarities to both Carcassonne and Alhambra, but it rises above both of those games literally and figuratively! I say figuratively because, in my opinion it is a better game than either, taking many of their strengths and removing most of their weaknesses. While it still retains the random tile drawing element of those games it mitigates the luck somewhat through drawing multiple tiles at once. I say literally because the game builds both horizontally and vertically allowing players to build glorious cardboard highrises into the heavens!
Players also draft city officials like the Mayor, Crime Boss, and Banker to determine turn order and what special ability each player will gain for the turn, Players place zoning and community tiles that will lay the foundation for the construction of buildings and the progress of the city. They then engage in a unique bidding system to acquire sites for their buildings later in the round. When the construction begins players must either build in areas in which they control some of the lots or add a level to an existing building that matches the color coding. All of these actions earn players points on a scoreboard that ranges from one to ten. The ten is indicated by a star, known as a benchmark. Players passing this mark gain one star towards their score while players landing exactly on it earn two stars. Given that each star is worth ten points the key to winning is preventing your opponents from landing on the star while doing so yourself as often as possible. This leads to some interesting decisions between what is possible now, and what may be possible on your next turn or turns. All of these elements combine into a wonderfully dynamic game that provides a challenging and entertaining gaming experience.
The four of us greatly enjoyed our play of Sunrise City. Heather, Eli, and myself agreed that it was the best game we played at Gen Con this year! We were able to purchase a copy in the exhibit hall on Sunday and are quite pleased to add it to our collection. We have become a lot more selective in what games we purchase and tend to only acquire those that provide a unique challenge or scratch a specific itch. I am glad to say that Sunrise City meets and exceeds both of those requirements and we are looking forward to enjoying it for many years to come!
After Sunrise City we were off to the Mayfair Games Room. We parted ways with Jim and were joined by Jeff Atkins as we headed to our next game. We decided to grab a copy of Giza: The Great Pyramid for our next game. This turned out to be a bad decision as something happened that has not occurred in so long that I can not remember when, if ever, it has happened before. I could not get through the rules! I am a fairly gentle reviewer as I love games in general, and while I will give my honest opinion, I am pretty easy to please at least somewhat. However, in this case I must say that the rules were utterly incomprehensible! I don’t know if I was tired from the prior days of gaming or if the background noise of the room was distracting me, but I could not manage to learn this game. I can not tell you how many games I have learned and taught over the years but I do know that Giza: The Great Pyramid is not going to be one of them. I tried for an hour, to no avail, to understand the first three pages of the rule book and finally gave up when I realized that I was no closer to learning the rules then I had been 60 minutes ago! At this point I concluded that if I ever figured out how to play this game there was no possible way it was going to be worth all of the effort and turned our copy in to the Mayfair people. Fortunately they were kind enough to let us check out a replacement game without spending any extra tickets.
We tried to put the nightmare that was Giza behind us and checked out a copy of Martin Wallace’s Discworld: Ahnk-Morpork. It is based on the series of novels by the same name by author Terry Pratchett. Although none of us had read any of the books, we found the theme of scheming and intrigue to be enjoyable, and it has even made some of us consider reading the books. That being said, we did not feel like the game was all that great as far as strategy was concerned. Between all of the dice rolling and random card draws it was very difficult to formulate an effective plan and execute it. Either you have the cards or you don’t, and that is not very satisfying. Despite these negatives, we still had fun playing the game. I don’t know if it was our disastrous experience with Giza effecting our judgement, but it was a decent game and I have no doubt that fans of the books would like it even more..
After a short break from gaming spent perusing the exhibition hall it was time head to the board game library for the 6 P.M. to 3 A.M. block. Heather left on her own for a while to go watch the Trailer Park Queen costume contest. I met up with Eli, Jim, Phillip, and Devin and we checked out Wolfgang Kramer’s classic, El Grande.
I found El Grande to be a very interesting game that showed itself to be a clear forerunner to many games that have come since its 1995 release. It has auction/bidding, area control, simultaneous action selection, and hand management elements that can be found in games like Game of Thrones the Board Game, Taj Mahal, and Dungeon Twister. Despite being an elder statesman in the realm of modern hobby board gaming, El Grande has handled its age quite well and was enjoyed by all.
I learned and explained the rules in approximately 40 minutes (Hear that Giza?) and we had very few cases where it was necessary to consult the rulebook. When you consider it was the first time that any of us had played El Grande this was quite an achievement. I would say that 90% of all our difficulties arose from misprints on some of the action cards. I do not know if this is a problem with all editions or just the copy that we were playing, but fortunately the proper wording for each action card was in the rulebook and cleared up any questions that we had. As we got deeper into the game and our understanding increased, as did the speed with which we played and were able to finish the entire game in about 90 minutes of play time. This is clearly a game that one may improve at dramatically with greater familiarity regarding the action cards. As such, I look forward to enjoying more plays of El Grande in the future.
Next up, was a quick game called Alchemist. The wonderful Courtney Baker took care of the teaching duties for this one as she had played it earlier in the Con and I must say it did not break my heart to have a break. The players for this game were Courtney, her brother Derrick, Eli, Heather, and I. After a few delays due to the arrival of our pizza and getting everyone ready to play again, we were off.
In Alchemist, players create recipes that have certain cube requirements and produce other cubes as well as victory points. The goal is to score the most victory points and is accomplished by creating recipes, seeing to it that you color of cube is the most heavily used, and scoring one point for every two cubes that you have left at the end of the game. Basically, you want to find the most efficient income stream of cubes and victory points from the choices available. I must say that the recipe creation process was an interesting mechanic, but overall I was not terribly impressed with the game. Perhaps it would be a better game with fewer players, but with five of us playing it felt like the game was over just as it was getting started. Still, it was a fun little game and Heather and I tied for first place with her winning on the tie breaker. As you might guess, this made her opinion of the game about one tie-breaker higher than mine!
The final game of the night was Reiner Knizia’s Taj Mahal. I had played this game once before and thus I reassumed my role as rules instructor from Courtney, with Heather and Eli joining us for the game. Due to a few unfortunate miscommunications there was some arguing early on that put a bit of a cloud over the game. It was resolved later when things calmed down and could largely be attributed to people being extremely tired, but the game felt like we were going through the motions to complete it rather than enjoy it. This is a shame, because Taj Mahal is a quality game that combines several Eurogame mechanics such as: set collection, network building, auction/bidding, hand management, and card drafting. It is a veritable buffet of mechanics meshed into one game to produce an enjoyable result.
The general opinion was that it was a quality game, but not remarkable in any particular way. The most original facet is the extremely high risk bidding rules and this was the source of our disagreement, as well as the least liked part of the game. I am all for nasty, cruel, ruthless gaming, but somehow the bidding seems almost too vicious for what the game is.
So ended our Saturday night (at 2:30 Sunday morning), and we headed home to grab some sleep before returning for a short day on Sunday. It was an amazing day spent with good friends playing great games just the way time at Gen Con should be used.
In my next post I will discuss the events of Sunday, talk about the order in which we rank the games that we played, as well as what we chose to purchase.